Iraq will be the scene of an unprecedented summit meeting on Saturday: Pope Francis, head of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, will be received by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest religious authority of many Shiite Muslims in Iraq and by the way.
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After meeting the Catholic clergy on his arrival in Baghdad on Friday, the 84-year-old Argentine pope reaches out to Shia Islam by visiting the 90-year-old dignitary – who never appears in public – in his modest home in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, 200 km south of Baghdad.
The two men will meet for nearly an hour for a “private” visit, two years after Pope Francis signed with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, an institution of Sunni Islam in Egypt, a “document on human brotherhood ”.
Neither the press nor other guests will attend this closed camera scheduled for 0600 GMT, but the addition of this step to the papal program is already a source of pride for many Shiites in a country which has been going for 40 years of conflict. in crises, through a deadly civil war between Shiite Muslims and Sunnis.
“We are proud of what this visit represents (…) it will give another dimension to the holy city”, welcomes the Shiite cleric Mohammed Ali Bahr al-Ouloum to AFP.
When he gets off the plane, the Sovereign Pontiff will be able to read the immense call for dialogue posted on the airport for his arrival.
“There are two kinds of men: either your brothers in the faith, or your equals in humanity”, assures the banner, quoting Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and founding figure of Shiism buried in the holy city.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is the highest authority for the majority of the world’s 200 million Shiites – minorities among the 1.8 billion Muslims. His only religious rival is the Iranian Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Of Iranian nationality, Grand Ayatollah Sistani has stood for decades as guarantor of Iraq’s independence and heads a theological school that advocates the withdrawal of religious from politics – they should only advise – unlike the Qom school in Iran.
“The theological school of Najaf is more secular than that of Qom, more religious,” recalls the Spanish cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Najaf, he adds, “gives more weight to the social aspect”.
The Grand Ayatollah has also used all of his weight to bring down the government, which for months in 2019 conspired by young demonstrators tired of seeing their country sink into corruption and mismanagement.
The Pope, like the Grand Ayatollah, are two religious figures who regularly make political comments. But both skilfully weigh their words.
Once again, the Pope has strewn his speech to the Iraqi authorities with allusions to the situation in the country, caught between its two great allies, the American and Iranian.
“That partisan interests cease, these external interests which are not interested in the local population”, thus launched François.
The Pope’s visit – under very high security – also takes place against a background of total containment with more than 5,000 contaminations by COVID-19 every day.
While the Pope was vaccinated before his trip, the Grand Ayatollah’s office did not report any such measures.
After Najaf, François must continue his journey south, to Ur, an ancient city where according to tradition the patriarch Abraham was born.
There he will pray with Shiite, Sunni, Yazidi and Sabaean dignitaries.